Have black Americans REALLY traveled until they’ve visited Africa?

July 16, 2009

Over the years, I’ve visited nearly 30 countries in North America, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe (where I’ve traveled so many times I’ve completely lost count).

But I’ve never been to Africa. And as an African-American, that sounds pretty pathetic.

Places on the continent are always on my mental “to-do” list, West African countries like Senegal and North African ones like Egypt and Morocco. But I haven’t made it there yet.

I started thinking about this during President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Ghana. Sure, he was there to send a message to the African world about the United States’ ongoing support—albeit with conditions that included self-responsibility—but what impressed me most about this native son’s return to his father’s home continent was the fact he took his wife Michelle, daughters Sasha and Malia, and First Mom-in-Law Marian along on the trip.

While we know the Obamas have visited Africa before—going to Kenya to meet the president’s relatives—this trip had to have especially important significance for First Lady Michelle, her mom and even the girls, as all are the descendants of both African-American slaves and white slaveowners. Visiting the “Door of No Return,” where mothers, fathers and children were violently and permanently separated from their homeland and shipped across the Atlantic as chattel, must have been mind-blowing. It’s a horribly painful part of American history, but as black folks, it’s ours. And it’s important for us to own it—and in the process, make that reconnection to the continent that often feels far away and foreign to many of us.

Which brings me back to my original point: Can we black Americans really feel well-traveled if we’ve never set foot on African soil? I’m starting to think “NO.”

While unlike President Obama, who knows his ancestral country and village, most of us don’t know specifically from where our foreparents hailed. We generally assume it was someplace in West Africa since that’s where most slaves sent to the New World lived, but can’t claim that direct connection to Senegal or Guinea or The Gambia. Still, many black folks who have traveled to these places describe a sense of feeling “at home” once they arrived, as if those centuries-old mystical links broken during the Middle Passage somehow felt restored.

But I’m curious what you guys think. For those of you who HAVE visited Africa—and I’m talking anywhere on the continent—how did it change you and your outlook on who you are? Did you feel like you had “come home?” And how important was it for you to make that reverse trip across the ocean?

As for me, I think I’m going to start planning that African journey now.

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21 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. colleenfriesen  |  July 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I’ll start with my disclaimer: I’m white. In fact, so white, that I don’t tan, I merely neutralize the blue. That being said, I’ve traveled to Africa four times now- South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Morocco, Egypt, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania. Each trip took about 5 weeks and were amazing for many reasons.
    Most of all, the incredible warm welcome from those countries. After all, it is the place of all our origins. We all started there and there is something about the place that reminds you of that fact.
    And then there is the very humbling fact of our crazy wealth in comparison to the majority of the people. Makes our constant interest in articles about de-cluttering our lives pretty sad when you see what most people have in their homes.
    I would highly recommend you go.
    Best,
    Colleen

  • 2. urbantravelgirl  |  July 21, 2009 at 5:57 am

    Colleen,
    You’re so right — visiting Africa isn’t just important for black folks, but for EVERYONE thanks to our collective human roots on that continent. And thanks for encouraging me to get myself there…. It’s probably a good thing that I can’t predict how I’ll feel about whatever place I decide to make my first visit (although I’ve always thought that would be Senegal). Besides, I could make use of those French lessons I’ve been taking for months!

    Maureen

  • 3. Mary R  |  July 27, 2009 at 8:31 am

    I’m also caucasian and lived in Namibia for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I believe that no person can claim to be well-traveled until they’ve experienced somewhere on the African continent.

    My reason is simply because Africa offers a completely unique ideology for viewing the world and life and our place within it. Other countries I’ve visited all over the world including Asia and the Middle East offer similar perspectives to western thinking with some small differences. However, Africa possesses a totally different schemata for it all. Everything operates according to different rules there– time, death, weather, family, providence…

  • 4. urbantravelgirl  |  July 27, 2009 at 10:21 am

    Wow — interesting perspective! I’ve spent some time in the Middle East but NONE in Asia, and just assumed that ways of thinking there would be 180 degrees different than the West because of the cultures, religions, etc., found there. But I’m fascinated to hear that you’ve found Africa to be even that much MORE different in terms of outlook.

    I’m truly encouraged! But where would YOU suggest I start for a first visit (I CERTAINLY don’t plan to make it my last!)?

    Maureen

  • 5. Mary R  |  July 27, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Maureen,
    I would say South Africa offers a lot in terms of scenery and culture. it’s interesting to see for its recent political and social developments as well, though its more westernized than other places. It’s a good jumping off point, however.

  • 6. urbantravelgirl  |  July 28, 2009 at 3:57 am

    South Africa’s also been a place “on the list,” but I think you’re right — especially for me as a journalist, there would more to see and more people to talk to about REAL LIFE than I can imagine. And I’ve known many friends who’ve visited SA, so I’d feel like there are folks I can talk to before traveling to get some real insight. And of course I’ll be hitting you up for advice, too!

    Thanks a ton… and stay tuned!!

  • 7. wandermom  |  August 1, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    What a powerful article!
    I’m like Colleen – so white I’m practically blue. But my first solo trip was to Egypt because I wanted to visit Africa and it was the most accessible country (for a solo-traveling 20yo). I did some touristy things, but tried to step out of the crowds and get a feel for the place – especially in the areas south of Aswan. What I saw – especially the poverty – impacted me so much that I promised myself that some day I would return and visit more of that continent.
    My husband was born in Zambia to Irish parents so now we’re planning to visit the region from S.Africa to Tanzania with our children next year. I know it’s going to be very challenging for them, but like some of the other commenters, I believe it is a necessary trip.

  • 8. urbantravelgirl  |  August 1, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Wandermom, your kids are super-lucky to have you as a parent! How cool that you and your husband are being so deliberative about educating them about the world, and willing to expose them to the sometimes “challenging” aspects of travel. Trips aren’t just about good times at Disney World and shopping, but should teach us something while we’re out of our comfort zones. Just imagine what the world would be like if more parents behaved like you?

    So glad you had a chance to make this connection to Africa as a young woman… I’m looking forward to doing it soon. Better later than never, right?

  • 9. eagehinna  |  November 25, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Tender thanks you representing details. It helped me in my mission

  • 10. Nic  |  December 20, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Good question UrbanTravelGirl. The first time that I traveled outside of the US, well not including a few days at the Canadian Falls, I traveled to Ghana. I was a part of a summer study program through my graduate school. I stayed there for 5 weeks. I made it my own, escaping the group as much as possible to create an experience that was mine. I made my own friends, I journeyed into towns and ventured on bus trips along with another like-minded student. Those were some of the most wonderful experiences of my life to that point.

    Since then I’ve traveled alone in Asia (lived there alone for 2 years too)and traveled as part of a couple in Central America and in the Caribbean, far off the tourist track. And I’ve been to several countries in Europe.

    Ghana remains close to my heart for the kindness of the people, for the remarkable beauty of the land, and for the gift of freedom that travel there gave to me. I’m black American and I do feel proud that I went there “first”. I’ve met many black Americans who hardly consider a journey to Africa as an option, unless it’s Egypt for the pyramids or maybe Kenya for safari. But as you say, it’s not all about Disney. I hope that you go, and soon. Senegal is high on my list too! I’m at a crossroads now, contemplating going to South America, as I’ve never been, or revisiting Africa. There’s just so much diversity and well, now’s a better time than any right?

  • 11. urbantravelgirl  |  December 23, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Nic, you’re so right — there’s NO time like the present! (Just wish my bank account agreed with me on that point.) But I hope I get to Africa soon, as well. Just last week, I was talking to my mom about planning a trip to Egypt — a dream trip for her, and for me, too.

    I can only imagine how special it must have been for you to set foot on The Continent first, before visiting all the other places you’ve been. I’ll bet it gave you a grounding that’s helped in all your other travels. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • 12. Teal Curtains  |  November 6, 2010 at 1:09 am

    You have given some points for my new projects and i am going to use those points in my poject.

  • 13. Hydrogen Peroxide Teeth Whitening  |  November 6, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks for a great post and your article is best i have ever seen.

  • 14. Deborah  |  April 28, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    I’m African American and lived and worked in Nigeria for a year. I’ve also visited Senegal, Togo and the Gambia. It definitely changed my perspective about myself and America. Yes I felt at home in a spiritual way which goes beneath the soul. Also there is a big difference when “living” and “visiting.” When I lived in Nigeria I became very respectful of their challenges (neo colonialism) but also felt a freedom not found in the States. No one cared that I wore my hair in braids, but in America you still can be fired from your job. As an African American you are “always” on display. Ironically enough I experienced a kind of “reverse” culture shock when I returned to the states. I began to see American culture as being out of touch and lacking spiritual values. Everything looked like a cartoon; especially television and the media in general. I also understood why for the most part why African Americans don’t venture out as much to explore the world. In America it feels more constrained compared to Africa; a kind of cultural divide.
    I’d like to here other experiences of people who have visited Africa (Nigeria in particular). I’m written a screenplay inspired by my time living in Nigeria.

  • 15. UrbanTravelGirl  |  April 28, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Ciao, Deborah — and thanks so much for your post! And thanks for sharing your perspective about living in Nigeria and traveling through Africa. Even though I originally wrote this post years ago, I still have yet to visit Africa — but I am determined to get there, and SOON.

    Like you, I’d love to hear what other UrbanTravelGirls who’ve traveled to Africa think about your viewpoint. Please weigh in, ladies (and gentlemen, if you’re reading).

    And Deborah, let us know when your screenplay about living in Nigeria hits a stage or screen so we can check it out!

    Cheers,
    Maureen

  • 16. Deborah  |  April 28, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Ciao Maureen,

    For anyone visiting the Motherland be sure to read: Journey to the Motherland – From San Francisco to Benin City by Larry Ukali Johnson-Redd

    It chronicles an African American and his experience while teaching and living in Nigeria for 4 years. The following site has a review of the book:

    http://www.nathanielturner.com/journeytomotherland.htm

    I am also finishing my screenplay inspired by my stay in Nigeria. I lived there many years ago, so I am interested in “present day” experiences. If you know of any African-Americans living there or have returned recently I’d like to hear about their experiences. I will keep you posted on my screenplay. Thanks.

  • 17. Nicole  |  July 29, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    This is an interesting question I have had for myself. I am currently a college student and will be doing an exchange program to China for a couple of months. When I come back I plan on doing it again but to Africa before I graduate. I wondered what it would feel like to go to Africa first instead of Asia and I even felt like I was betraying Africa in some type of way. I believe for anyone visiting abroad from the state’s the idea of the visiting the “dark continent” is scary unless your open minded. I want to see the beauty & everyone should at least once in their life.

  • 18. UrbanTravelGirl  |  July 29, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    Ciao, Nicole — and thanks for your comment!! I wrote this post five years ago (!!) and can’t BELIEVE that I STILL haven’t made it to Africa. And I do feel guilty about that. Perhaps I need to make that the NEXT overseas trip I take!

    Here’s hoping your experience in China is a wonderful one!

    Take care and happy travels,
    Maureen

  • 19. BaahbaahBlacksheep  |  November 20, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    I am going to Morocco solo in the spring of 2015 and I am wondering if I made the wrong choice as I have heard agression toward foreign women in the country is commonplace. I have heard that mostly from white women though. As a milk chocolate Black woman, will I be excempt from this kind of harrassment? Should I not venture out at night alone? Should I not venture out without a tour guide during the day? Any one ever been to Morocco solo, not even joining a group day tour? Please tell me about your experience. Thanks!

  • 20. Keeksandfreaks  |  March 22, 2015 at 6:52 am

    Baahbaah black sheep,

    Hey girl, hey! Hope you get this, but I too will be traveling in morocco alone come spring. For anyone else interested, I’ll also be visiting other countries in Africa (SA, Tanzania/Zanzibar, Uganda). But I will be starting in morocco. This will be my first time on the continent. I’m African American and have traveled solo through Central America and the EU/UK. I understand your concerns, but I would say, be alert, keep your smarts about you and never second guess your intuition. I have heard really great things about morocco, as well as not such great things. But I bet that if you’re respectful of the culture and kind to the people, you’ll be ok. Also, if you’ve traveled alone before, you realize that you’re never truly alone. Be open and you’ll make friends.

    When do you depart and how long is your stay? If you get this and you’ll be there around when I am if be down to meet up! I’ll be traveling south from tangier into marakessh by train.

    Anyway, I plan to detail my travels via blog, so please, urban travel girl, allow me to come back and spam your blog with my URL so you all can virtually join me!

    (Please excuse typos, wrote this on my phone)

  • 21. Keeksandfreaks  |  March 22, 2015 at 6:57 am

    I mean Marrakech!!

    And *i’d be down to meet up.

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